In August of 2016, a mother and her four children (all under the age of seven) were found dead in their home. After the situation was investigated, it was reported that the mother had poisoned her children and then taken her own life. A few days later the husband committed suicide. While the cause of death will never be known, some doctors and sociologists concluded that overwhelming poverty was the real root cause that led to the death of each member of the family.
In recent years, psychologists have been taking a closer look at the link between negative financial circumstances and compromised mental health situations. Studies suggest that the two are strongly correlated. Does poverty lead to mental illnesses? Does mental illness lead to poverty? Are they even connected? Although no firm data supports a definitive answer regarding causation, many doctors suggest that poverty leads to mental illness on the part of many patients. Research related to this topic is relatively new, only spanning about 25 years.
Although the research is fledgling, the data collected stands firm on there being a correlation between poverty and mental illness. In a 2010 review of over 115 studies, it was found that poverty stricken areas exhibited higher rates of mental illness. Higher rates of crime were also found in these areas. Inversely, similar studies have also concluded that financially stable areas have reported lower rates of depression and crime, and higher levels of happiness.
The inability to manage money and the extra cost of hospital bills are two of the leading factors that link mental illness to poverty. Lack of money increases stress. Individuals who experience certain types of stress are inclined to have the compounding negative effects of greater levels of mental illness. The link between financial stress and mental illness is logical and fits with most individuals’ sense of what makes common sense.
Cash grants or cash transfer programs are used in some countries. These programs are helping to reduce levels of poverty and relieve the stress of families and individuals. A report in Mexico showed that the stress levels of those individuals who received the cash grants were lower. Higher levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, were found in the children whose families did not receive the cash grants. At the same time, cash transfers have grown less popular in countries such as the U.S. On the other hand, some countries in Scandinavia are experimenting with guaranteed incomes.
My feeling is that the issues of mental health and poverty, and solutions to both, are incredibly complex. It will not help if societies assume that poverty always leads to mental illness. The data does not back up such a claim. At a time when government programs are not assumed to be the answer to each social problem in the U.S., it is incumbent upon those who question government effectiveness to respond to challenges regarding poverty and mental illness. I am known as a person who believes the private sector can accomplish many great deeds. But, I do not feel as confident that mental illness can be easily addressed by business alone.
David Wright is a student at Brigham Young University and a participant in the Oxford Social Enterprise Symposium.